Queen of Hip-Hop Soul talks sequel to landmark album, homophobia and strip clubs
You could say this is Mary J. Blige’s second life.
Her first, candidly chronicled on her confessions-of-a-wreck album My Life, was an early glimpse into one of the biggest singing superstars in the world, who not only went public with her pain but eventually overcame it. My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act 1) is the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul 17 years later, after releasing nine other studio albums, taking home just as many Grammys and becoming, as she now calls herself, “the living proof.” That’s also the title of a song on her latest release, originally recorded for The Help, that nabbed her a Golden Globe nomination this year.
In a recent chat, Blige let us in on her Life, how she became aware of her gay following and – when asked about pal P. Diddy’s “faggot” controversy – why she thinks “people should be careful with their words.”
Your middle initial isn’t visible on the album cover. Is there significance to that? Does that symbolize a new era in Mary J. Blige’s life?
Nah. Just didn’t have any space for it! (Laughs) I’m in the middle of the picture and the J is in the middle of the thing, so it’s like, where we gonna put it? But no, I’m not ever dropping the J. That’s my name.
The hair is the problem, then.
Yeah, exactly! That’s what happened. (Laughs)
One of the biggest reasons you turned your life around from My Life to My Life II was because you wanted to set a positive example for fans who look up to you. A lot of them are gay. When in your career did you know so many gay fans were leaning on you as a source of inspiration?
Wow, it was a gradual thing that I started to see a lot on Mary and No More Drama. I had no idea and it gradually started happening. I did something at some club – it was a gay club – and it was just crazy. That’s when I really knew that I had a gay following.
I love it. I just love my brothers and I love my sisters. I love them all. We’re all in this together. And I have gay friends. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to heal together the way we’ve been healing over the years.
The new album features “Need Someone,” a track written and originally recorded by Matt Morris. And he’s gay.
Oh, I didn’t know that! See, a lot of things I don’t know. (Laughs) That’s why I said it’s a gradual thing. I’m just finding out. The song is friggin’ amazing.
What about that song drove you to record it?
Jimmy lovine brought the song to me, and when he played the song my bones were chilled and my hair on the back of my neck was standing up. It was so haunting because of the deepest part about that record: Not only do we need someone to love us – but why and who that is. I think we’ve all grown to know that that person is us. We need to love ourselves before anyone else can love us, and that’s the message I got from it immediately. I was like, “Wow, I could see myself singing this to my younger self.” Jimmy was like, “I want you to do this song” – and he didn’t need to say any more.
Seems like a track that you could’ve used during the original My Life era.
You know, I wish I had the strength to do that song then but I didn’t, so I had to give the world the album in the condition that I was in. Somebody asked me a question while I was doing a radio interview: “If My Life was to meet up with My Life II on the street somewhere, what do you think they would do?” I said, “They would give each other a hug and say, ‘Thank you for saving my life.’” My Life, the first one, would say to My Life II, “Thank you for having the strength to pull us through this.”
Other artists on the music scene around the time you launched your career in the early ’90s burned out; you’re still going strong two decades later. What’s the key to your longevity?
First, I never denied the fact that God is the reason responsible for every single thing. I remember praying and asking for a “why” to stay alive, and I know that if there wasn’t praying and making God first in my life, I wouldn’t have the fans that I have. And if it weren’t for the fans and the love that they have for my life, period, and not just my career – the fans that really respect my walk and everything I’ve done – there would be no My Life II, or III or IV. There would be no No More Drama, no albums. So also the fact that my fans really mean a lot to me – because when I spoke out on the My Life album, they responded and they saved my life – and responded to that album and let me know I wasn’t the only one suffering in the things I was suffering in.
Obviously you’re a very spiritual person; you regularly quote proverbs on your Twitter. Because of your faith and growing up in a religious household, was it ever a conflict for you to be as accepting as you are of gay people?
I’m not a religious person. Religion is religion and I don’t need a deep relationship with God to have a religion. That’s not why I believe Christ died. I believe he died to give us a deep relationship with God, and in having a deep relationship and walk with God, there is no judgment. We cannot judge or think we’re better than anybody.
I have nothing but love for everyone in the universe. I believe we can all teach each other something, and I believe we can all grow and learn from one another. I’m a spirit, so I need spiritual assistance – that means I need to pray, I need to read The Word, I need to share The Word with people. That’s what it’s for. It’s not for me to be like, “You’re gonna burn in hell.” That’s not what I believe God wants me to testify about.
The fact that I’ve been through so much, and my trials and tribulations are out in the open, is to heal other people. And that I’ve come through it isn’t to say I’m better; it’s to say we all can do it.
As someone who’s said she won’t tolerate homophobia, what did you make of friend/collaborator P. Diddy’s recent lash out at a club-goer, whom he called a “faggot”?
I can’t make the judgment call one way or the other on what Puff was going through that day. All I can say is he apologized, and I know it’s a harsh word but I have to speak for Mary J. Blige. We have to all be careful with what our thoughts are so they don’t become our words, and that’s what prayer and being spiritually grounded (are for) – because if you’re spiritually grounded, you put yourself in other people’s shoes. I gotta speak for Mary, though. I can’t really speak for Puff. As far as I’m concerned, I think people should be careful with their words. You gotta think before you jump out there.
Especially with how much words hurt and all the bullying we’re hearing more about lately.
Yeah, that’s not cool. That’s horrible. It’s killing people, because you don’t understand what they’re going through or what their life may be. That’s not fair.
You can relate, I’m sure. You weren’t understood by a lot of people early in your career.
Totally, 100 percent. And I’m still misunderstood by a lot of people. But the one thing that I do know about me that’s real is that I have love and respect for mankind, period.
Tell me about working on the upcoming Rock of Ages film, due out in the summer.
I had a good time! It was a lot of fun going to work when we were shooting Rock of Ages because my role as Justice is to be a strip club owner. She’s a lot of fun but she’s strong, and we sang some of the really good classic songs from the ’80s like “Any Way You Want It” and “Here I Go Again.” It was just fun, man. The little part that I did with Tom Cruise? Amazing!
Julianne Hough and I became really good friends because she’s a sweetheart, and I love (director) Adam Shankman to death. Adam knew exactly what he wanted. He told us what he wanted and he just made me feel like I was already a seasoned movie star. He was like, “Just do what you do.” He’s so down-to-earth.
Of course he’s lovable: He’s gay.
Yeah, and some of my best friends are. Like Elton John is super down-to-earth and he’s not into all that fluff. He is what he is and he’s like, “Look, man, you are my friend and I’m your friend.” I love him.
Did you hit up strip clubs for research?
I sure did, and I had fun doing it! (Laughs) I went to one in New York called Sin City. It ended up being fun because all of my fans were in there. I went with all the guys and they were going to have fun and I’m going because I’m doing, like, homework. I got a chance to see what everything is and do some method acting.
You recently did VH1 Divas. Why is it that divas are always getting pitted against each other like it’s a competition?
They make it a competition because they make it sound like it is. But the bottom line: We get in there, we work together and we’re around each other for a couple of hours. We gotta get along and love and respect each other.
When will you duet with Mariah and make my diva dream come true?
Whenever she says the word. I love Mariah! I mean, come on. (Laughs)
You’re the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul – don’t you have her digits? Call her and be like, “Mariah, let’s do it.”
(Laughs) I do have her number!